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  • Jamie Shannon

Crossing into South East Asia at long last. Western food is back on the menu!

Not so long ago in a place not very far from here (Laos) I found myself stood outside the Vietnamese immigration hall trying to ascertain how in the hell I managed to get a puncture in the 500 metres it took me to ride through no man’s land. Some things, I decided just didn’t make sense.

But at long last China was over with. China was finished. I could write an entire post on my thoughts about that little ordeal but I shall leave that for another day as I’m writing this now whilst sat inside my tent in Laos and my precious battery life is dwindling by the second.

On the road to Hanoi, Vietnam
On the road to Hanoi, Vietnam

I was in a new country at last. An area of the world where deserts wouldn't have to be crossed (Uzbekistan), high altitude mountains would not have to be climbed (China) and where food consisted of more than a bowl of oily broth garnished with a few potatoes and carrots (Central Asia). Yes I had arrived in the fabled land of South East Asia. I could start living like a human again.

Main highway, north of Hanoi
Main highway, north of Hanoi

I set out henceforth and made a beeline for Hanoi, the capital a day and a half’s ride south and in doing so realised that a) I had to learn a new set of traffic rules and b) I had to learn them really quite fast. It really was every man, child, chicken and dog for themselves out here.

Nothing much happened to be fair and a little later in the morning, with no where to perch my ass and make some coffee, I pulled off the road into a garage alongside the highway. Upon asking if it was okay to sit down, I was requested to take a seat with the family. There were all quite welcoming and the kids were really funny too screeching the few words they knew English at the top on their little lungs.

These were the first Vietnamese I had had the good fortune to meet and I was pleasantly surprised at how inviting and friendly they all were. When I tried to untangle my hair, the lady even offered me the use of their modest shower out the back.

I was given some of the local super strength liquor as was the custom and invited to smoke on a huge pipe which looked a little like a bong but which was instead used for the smoking of tobacco. I very nearly choked. This stuff was too strong for me and I politely declined their next offer.

104km's until I reach Hanoi, Vietnam
104 km's to go!

It was a lovely bit of cycling, particularly as I was heading towards the coast. All those kilometres I had accumulated in China were now disappearing fast beneath my wheels as I continued my descent towards Hanoi. It was the perfect way to end an exhausting few months.

On the way, I met two Chinese cyclists doing a short tour of Vietnam before returning home. They actually spoke English too! Why did I not meet these people in China I wondered……

I sat down for ten minutes in order to munch on the last of my Chinese military biscuits I had been carrying. I was getting decidedly hungry now but with no money, this was all the sustenance I could offer myself. Children rode past and said hello. Shopkeepers waved and greeted me. It was a wildly different scene from China. I mean they didn’t just stare and take pictures but actually greeted me like a human. It felt great.

Polluted scenes in Vietnam
Polluted scenes in Vietnam

I rode into a small town in the hope of finding a cash machine but it was no use. I needed food badly now and so it was on to plan B. I asked a lady at a shop/café if there was a cash machine in town because I was hungry (rubs belly) and I had no cash (points to holes in shorts). I was thus given a baguette filled with cheese and meat. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Aside from her immense generosity, I was staring down at freshly baked bread filled with cheese. It had been a long time since I had seen these two foodstuffs and I ate it like a man on a mission. Dear lord it was tasty.

I continued through more mountainous scenery but with the highway now being punctuated by huge convoys of trucks that screamed past wildly. When you added in all the scooters that swerved their way through the mayhem it was complete chaos but I was enjoying this mayhem as strange as that may sound.

By 5 pm I arrived in the small town of Kep and was immediately given some kind of crisps by two men sat by the road in the centre of town. I was soon looking for a cash machine again and eventually found one outside a bank.

It was located inside a glass booth and I had to continually swat away these children that kept coming inside and pressing buttons on the keypad whilst I was trying to figure out how many zero’s to press. In the end the machine wouldn’t accept my card thus I wandered over to another street where I asked a lady in a shop if she could change 5 dollars for me instead. I only wanted some chocolate and cigarettes as I actually had proper food to eat for dinner.

Trying my hardest not to get scammed

I was escorted around the corner to a gold shop where I think the guy wouldn’t change it as it was such a small amount. We then walked back to the shop where the lady decided she would change it herself. It went something like this.

Me: I want that pack of cigarettes. (Points of them some Marlboro's)

Lady: This one?

Me: Yes. How much for those?

Lady: Takes my five dollars (approximately 110,000 Dong) Places on counter 50,000.

Me: No, no, no. These do not cost $2.50. They cost $1.50 in China thus they can’t cost more here. Give me those one’s (points to another pack)

Lady: Takes my cigarettes and rumbles around behind counter before returning the same cigarettes minus all the money.

Me: So now the same pack cost’s $5? Give me the money back.

Lady: Returns half the money to the counter but this time with no cigarettes.

Me: and the rest…..

Lady: Gives back the cigarettes but with only 40,000 Dong.

Me: No way they cost 70,000

Lady: She smiles and hands me back another 10,000 Dong

Me: Deceitful bitch. I want another 30,000 Dong or I’m not leaving.

We settle on 20,000 so I got back 70,000 in the end.

That’s one thing I liked about China. No matter where you were, I always received a fair price and no matter what I bought and where I bought it, I received a price that was always very similar. They never ripped me off. So many times I gave the person what I thought the bag of vegetables I was holding was worth, and more often than not, received more change than I expected. Was Vietnam going to be different? Yes and no. Here, at least where they regularly encountered foreigners, they would openly try to deceive you. I would find out later that out of the tourist areas, they were all very fair.

With the light now fading, I set off once more along the highway in the vain hope of finding somewhere to camp. I couldn’t see anything though. Everywhere was being used for crops and homes and it was getting really dark now. I continued on and on until it was completely pitch black. By now I was panicking slightly. With no lights, the highway was highly dangerous and rather foolish to be cycling on. With this in mind, I quickly darted off down a small lane into an area of houses where I came to lots of rice paddies at the back. Absolutely nowhere to camp.

Street life in Vietnam
Street life in Vietnam

I returned to the road and began a half hour search down path after path in complete darkness, tentatively cycling along in case I fell into the water channel’s that so often seemed to run alongside them.

In the end, I came to yet more rice paddies and with myself desperate now for somewhere to pitch, opted for a spot in between the path and the entrance to a small field of crops.

I was awake the next morning as soon as the roosters started to howl – about half four in this part of the world. By five, lots of scooters started to whizz by my tent and then groups of people would walk past chatting about whatever they were chatting about – completely oblivious to the fact that I was lay inside a tent not two metres from where they were. I’ve said this before but if you wish to stealth camp, then go for a natural colour and not bright orange.

I found my way back to the highway but had to wait a half hour as I didn’t want to be on there when the sun hadn’t even started to rise.

By half six, I already had 10 km’s in for the day and with Hanoi just 60 km’s further on, decided to take a breakfast stop in the city of Bak Giang at around nine after I had eventually found a cash machine that would accept my card.

I sat outside a café in a very content mood. I was drinking an iced coffee made from real coffee which was the first I had had in about one month. With just 50 km’s until I reached Hanoi, I felt almost like I was nearly there. I’d be there by one at this rate.

Breakfast required me to park my ass on the other side of the street where I indulged in two very tasty omelette baguettes. Incredible. Try eating bread and drinking proper coffee just once in nearly two months and you may get an idea as to how much pleasure these two things can give you. The two baguettes and the iced coffee came about £1.80. Yes I think it was fair to say that I was going to like Vietnam.

After getting a little lost coming out of the city, I sped along the highway for another 20 km’s until I came to Bac Ninh – a much larger city and where I became completely disorientated.

Coming into Bac Ninh, the road I had been using now ended as far as cycling was concerned as the last 30 km’s developed into a motorway proper. I cycled around and around and out into the fields and dirt tracks around the city trying to figure out how I would get across the river. The only bridge, from as far as I could tell, only carried the motorway but after going around in circles for what seemed like an eternity, I stopped to ask directions from someone who would come to guide me out of the city himself.

We talked for a good ten minutes about this and that before he gave me a solid set of directions on where I could find the road that would take me south towards Hanoi.

Ion the way, he rode past me on his scooter and told me to follow him. Whilst cycling along the main thoroughfare through the city, he asked me if I would like some coffee. We went to this small café just off the main street where we sat and talked for a half an hour before I really did have to be on my way. He even went to the supermarket in order to buy me three beers which I would use to mark my arrival once I reached Hanoi. I very kind guy indeed.

By noon, I was flying along the highway towards my destination. Towns came thick and fast by this point as I neared the mighty metropolis and I didn’t have time to take anything in. Most of my energy went on simply navigating my way through the crazy traffic.

I was stopped a little later by some people at the roadside whom again invited me to smoke on their tobacco pipe. (No euphemism’s here!) I sat down with them but declined their offer. I noticed that the shop next door selling tv’s was airing a Man United game which some kids were watching through the windows. Home creature comforts were edging closer by the minute. I was by now very excited. Fluent English would be back on the menu soon. Cheap cold beers would be drunk and some western food could be enjoyed. Life would be easier and I was on my way again within minutes.

Entering Hanoi, Vietnam
Entering Hanoi, Vietnam

When I got to within 10 km’s of the city, it was time for a toilet break but everywhere I asked I was rebuffed with a wave of the arms. This wouldn’t happen out in the country but I didn’t argue. I simply found a waste ground of sorts where I could do my business. I watched as various people pulled bicycles laden with carts around whilst rooting through the garbage for any odds and ends that they thought might have some intrinsic value in them. It was a sobering sight and something that I hadn’t really witnessed in China. There was real poverty here.

Finally reaching Vietnam - nine months after setting off from England

A half hour later, I approached a bridge that took me over a huge river. Hundreds of scooters enveloped me as I made my way across. If I had extended my arm left or right, I would have smacked someone in the face. That’s how much room there was. It was thrilling.

On the other side, the huge expanse of Hanoi presented itself and I felt eager to get to the centre and to find somewhere where I could relax and breath a huge sigh of relief.

I followed an eight lane road in the vague direction of where I thought I needed to go. I had memorised exactly where the old part of town was located in relation to the river crossing and thus I felt confident.

The traffic was too crazy though, particularly as I was whizzing through it with only one hand on the handlebar – with the other one being used to hold aloft my camera which was busy filming the action.

I soon took a right onto one of the quieter streets and thought this might be a good time to check my map and ask for directions too. I was shouted at by a lady selling drinks to come and sit by her. She gave me a coke for free which was most welcome. I told her about my trip and how wonderful it felt to have finally arrived in Vietnam and she told me she wouldn’t have asked for me to come over but for the fact that I seemed like an interesting character – very different from the usual tourists she so often see’s. I guess that’s the other great thing about travelling by bicycle – you look very approachable and unthreatening.

I arrived at the huge lake in the centre ten minutes later where I finally plonked my ass down on a bench in anticipation of my celebratory beer. It was a great feeling indeed and one that I would have to share by many passers-by as I sat there. First two Vietnamese guys came over to have their photo taken and then two students wandered over in order to practice their English. Soon after this, another two students wandered over after which I gave them an impromptu English lesson as they recorded me. I had to hold out these cards with very simple words written on them whilst I said each word out loud breaking it down into its syllables. Not something I had expected upon my arrival here but it was fun nonetheless. The girl even invited me to stay with her family on the outskirts of the city If I could come and give her class a quick lesson. We all swapped contact details before I felt it was time to find the hostel I had booked and………

…….it didn’t appear to exist.

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